Sheku Kanneh-Mason memorable Glasgow debut with Shostakovich’s Second Cello Concerto

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bacewicz, Fauré, Shostakovich: Sheku Kanneh-Mason (cellist), Katy Anna Hill (soprano), Marcus Farnsworth (baritone), RSNO Junior Chorus, Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Elim Chan (conductor). Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 5.3.2022. (GT)

Sheku Kanneh-Mason (c) Sally Jubb

Grazyna Bacewicz – Divertimento
Shostakovich – Cello Concerto No.2, Op.126
Fauré – Requiem in D minor, Op.48

One of the positive aspects of last year’s digital series of concerts by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra was the introduction of long neglected music by women and other neglected composers, one of whom was the Polish composer Grazyna Bacewicz – a twentieth-century composer who has lately attracted the interest of record companies and concert promoters. She wrote a large amount of music in diverse genres when Polish music was dominated by world-class composers such as Panufnik, Penderecki, and Lutoslawski. Interestingly, Bacewicz has her own voice and deserves greater attention in our ever-intertwined world, sadly she died at 60 when most composers are reaching their mature period. She was a member of the Polish avant-garde and specifically explored a form called ‘sonorism’ which sought expression through texture and timbre rather than pitch.

The Divertimento opened with the brief first movement (Allegro) in a rather bracing theme and a dissonant flurry of tritone strings which had an almost mesmerising effect, yet which became increasingly darker. In the second movement (Adagio) we heard a rather haunting idea which became ever so beautiful in its threnody, while in the third movement (Giocoso) drama and momentum came from a theme opening stridently in the violas through to the cellos and violins switching across the stage in colours both dynamic and powerful. This was a fine performance revealing the international standards of the orchestra’s strings, and certainly one hopes to hear more of this outstanding Polish composer. The performance of Bacewicz’s Divertimento was possible through the support from ABO Trust’s Sirens Programme and the Ambache Charitable Trust.

Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason has become a global superstar since winning the BBC Young Player of the Year award in 2016, and famously performing at a certain royal wedding two years later, and his recordings have borne out his great virtuosity and promise in diverse repertoire. I remember his performance of Elgar’s concerto three years ago at the Edinburgh International Festival which evoked among many memories of Jacqueline du Pre’s championing of that twentieth-century masterwork. This concert marked his debut with the RSNO and has been an event eagerly awaited by audiences here.

Shostakovich’s Second Cello Concerto dates from 1966 when the composer’s health was already declining, nevertheless he was still producing outstanding music, indeed this work marks a new late stage in which he sought new forms of expression, increasingly using percussion, and with a distinct course towards laying down his legacy in the string quartet medium. This piece was originally to be premiered by Evgeny Mravinsky with Mstislav Rostropovich in Leningrad in October 1966, however for different reasons, it was Evgeny Svetlanov who conducted the first performance with the USSR State Symphony Orchestra. The Second Cello Concerto is – like the composer’s First Violin Concerto – symphonic in structure and content.

The work demands great virtuosity from the soloist, which perhaps has led to infrequent performances – I cannot recall a performance here in many years. In the opening Largo, the soloist opened with a mysteriously dark idea, and as the orchestra joined, the theme became one of deep mourning with an almost agonising threnody heard across the whole orchestra. The cellist is involved constantly from the opening through to the closing bars, and he rarely looked at his score. As he played this often-agonising music, all of the music’s emotions were visible on Kanneh-Mason’s face, sometimes switching from agonised grimaces to cheeky smiles. Through the three movements played with no break, there was some perky woodwind playing, and, as if recalling his childhood, there emerged childlike images on the percussion instruments, the genius of Shostakovich is that he continued to write astonishing orchestral writing through to the end. In the second movement (Allegretto) Kanneh-Mason played superbly with complete backing from Elim Chan and her orchestra, every gesture and movement from her hands was crucial in her control of the music’s momentum. Notable was the Odessa street song ‘Bubliki, kupite bubliki!’ (Bread rolls, buy bread rolls) in a little witty tune shared across the whole orchestra. There was notably outstanding play from the cello, harp and flute in a memorable extended passage of great beauty. In the third movement (Allegretto) the horns introduced a fanfare followed by a cadenza accompanied by the tambourine conjuring up a quite macabre atmosphere with a lyrical, dance-like passage and march which eventually merges with the percussion entering into the culmination. Then we heard a grotesque reappearance of the Odessa street song in a very comical transposition by the soloist. Slowly, ever so slowly the narrative of the cello heard against the slow and steady beats from the large percussion group, seemed as if life was ticking away ending on a dying sforzando. This was an incredibly fine performance by Kanneh-Mason with superb support from Chan and her musicians. One hopes that she will continue as the RSNO Principal Guest Conductor for many years in whatever repertoire she chooses, she is supreme in presenting outstanding musical performances. Hopefully, this will be the first of many concerts with this brilliant young English-born cellist here in Scotland.

Gabriel Faure’s Requiem shares popularity on stage with the requiems by Mozart and Verdi and is perhaps the most satisfying to hear outside of church performances. Despite its deeply religious essence, it is interesting that Nadia Boulanger wrote: ‘It might be said that he understood religion more after the fashion of the tender passages of St John, following St Francis of Assisi rather than St Bernard or Bossuet. His voice seems to interpose itself between heaven and men; usually peaceful, quiet and fervent, sometimes grave and sad, but never menacing or dramatic.’ In a concert of tragically moving works, it was wholly appropriate to close this evening with Faure’s Requiem at a time of mourning over Europe’s latest tragedy.

The Introit et Kyrie immediately set the tone with quite beautiful singing of the words, ‘Let them rest eternal, Grant unto them rest, O Lord’. The beautiful choral singing was matched by the splendid orchestral playing giving gorgeous support with the organ to the fore. Throughout, we heard outstanding singing from the soprano Katy Anna Hill and the baritone Marcus Farnsworth, but the greatest credit is for the peerless voices of the RSNO Youth Chorus, their singing was truly glorious and inspiring especially in the Agnus Dei, ‘Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, grant them rest’ and in the Libera me, ‘Deliver me, O Lord from death eternal, in that fateful day, When the heavens and earth shall be shaken’. In the conclusion to this masterpiece (In Paradisum) the singing of the final phrases ‘May the choirs of Angels receive thee, and with Lazarus, once poor, mayest thou have eternal rest’ closed this work and the concert in a truly marvellous manner.

This was one of the finest, most outstanding concerts for a long time, not only in magnificent musical performance, but in a humanitarian cry for peace in the world.

Gregor Tassie

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